Vashti Bunyan has carved herself a nice little nook in the alternative music canon. Over 40 years ago she released Just Another Diamond Day, a work of inimitable pastoral beauty. Her work passed by largely unrecognised until the 2000’s when she was anointed the godmother of the freak-folk movement- led by the likes of Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart, and Joanna Newsom. Since then Bunyan has resurfaced and not only collaborated with all the aforementioned artists (most notably in Prospect Hummer with Animal Collective), but has also recently released her third album.
What makes Vashti Bunyan’s music so interesting now is that instead of casting aside her original style for something barely recognisable, as we see with Scott Walker’s re-emergence, she has sought to preserve it. Yet now these songs about youth and joy are sung by a 69 year old. It is the framework that has changed, not the theme. Bunyan’s voice wavers in holding a note too long, her piano stutters to find a steady rhythm, and her guitar picking softens as they go on.
However we do not feel a process of decay. Or perhaps this decay isn’t felt as negative. For between these cracks and imperfections we see a new fragile beauty shine through. Bunyan sings ‘Gunpowder’ in near gasps, as she tries to catch then note and then hold it. Or in ‘Holy Smoke’ she is half a beat too slow, as the voice tries to escape through the breath. It is almost as if the music is caught in constant tension between the songs’ natural grace and her near-overwhelming effort to express them.
Heartleap is not Bunyan’s comeback album, but more the follow-up to the comeback, which would be Lookaftering in 2005. And yes the albums are quite similar, not only sonically but also visually- with the ligatured album titles and corresponding covers of tapestry-style woodland animals. Lookaftering is a beautiful album, and very effectively established Bunyan’s new delicate style. And so in its likeness does Heartleap establish itself in Lookaftering’s shadow? Indeed the songs sound less adventurous and more faded- as if descending from sepia to grey.
Yet in this fading, we see a subtle refinement of Bunyan’s craft. In Lookaftering Bunyan’s songs are expansive with fugues and incremental use of instrumentation as heard in ‘Same but Different’. Meanwhile in Heartleap, Bunyan zones in on the specifics. In ‘Mother’ she recalls a moment as a child watching her mother dance. Bunyan only slightly adjusts the wording for the second verse, as if to even further refine the moment and the view from the ‘slightly opened door’.
The instrumentation is also much sparser on this album, which shows faith in the notes and the voice to carry the song, as exemplified in ‘Jellyfish’ and ‘Gunpowder’. This sparseness also allows more emphasis on the lyrics themselves, which before I had never really treated independently but more as factors of the Bunyan’s songs. However, for example in the opener ‘Across the Water’ the deep pastoral language glides unavoidably by: ‘Every day is every day/One foot in front of the other/ Learn to fall with the grace of it all/ As stones skip across the water’. Maybe the reason they are unavoidable is because they are noticeably bleak. The sadness seeps through idyllic scenes. In ‘Blue Shed’ Bunyan yearns for a ‘blue shed with nobody in it’, and in ‘Gunpowder‘ she notes with reluctant acceptance ‘It seems however hard I try/Those words that I let fly out of my mouth/ don’t ever say what I want them to say.’
By Heartleap, the stakes seem to have been raised from waking up into diamond days, to addressing the final sleep. Vashti Bunyan announced that this would be her final album, and listening to it can you see why. By the eponymous and closing track of the album you can hear the framework finally falling apart. At the end Bunyan can barely let out the word ‘heartleap’ before the piano and guitar start disassembling and fade away. Not since Big Star’s Third could I feel someone slipping away so vividly. The experience is harrowing but also one worth having, as predictably the sweetness always comes with the bitter.